The parents who wrote the school plan

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Faced with the closure of their children's school Jan Hilson and Dave Stock decided to write their way out of trouble. reports Nicolas Barnard.

Home-school contracts are one thing, but two south London parents have rewritten the book when it comes to partnership in education.

When Merton Council decided to shut Watermeads high school, in Morden, after inspectors deemed it failing, it sparked the inevitable parent meetings, petitions, leaflets and banners.

But Jan Hilson and Dave Stock went further. Like parents at many failing schools they did not accept the HMI report. And with GCSEs on the horizon for their children, they wanted continuity.

So they decided: if Merton wouldn't help write an action plan to turn the school around, they would.

They had never met before attending a parents' protest meeting but found both ran their own businesses - Mr Stock is a locksmith while Ms Hilson sells computers.

"The only thing to do was write our own plan to take the school forward, " Mr Stock says. "Whether we agreed with the inspectors or not, those problems had to be addressed.

"So we treated it as a failing business and put in a business plan - as if it were facing a hostile takeover bid by the local education authority."

Backed by a leaflet campaign that crossed three boroughs to all the primaries and secondaries that would be affected, the result is apparent success.

Councillors agreed to consider a fresh start for the school, which serves the huge St Helier housing estate. Four pupils in 10 get free school meals and half have special needs.

The plan is terse, but identifies the need for "damage limitation", rigorous monitoring of teaching and to involve staff in plans for improvement. Merton spokesman Paul Parry is in no doubt it changed councillors' minds.

"The parents' action plan is really the reason the education committee opted to look at other possibilities," he says. "Closure is still on the agenda but members were so impressed by their approach and their commitment that it was worth giving the school another chance."

The plan was written in a weekend: it had to be. The recommendation to close was made by education director Jenny Cairns before the HMI report was even published and parents had just a week before councillors met to consider it.

An Office for Standards in Education inspection 18 months ago identified serious problems and Merton says it has been concerned for several years. Debts have plagued the school since local management was introduced.

A follow-up HMI visit last December found it failing - but not beyond redemption, according to teachers. "Their view was we'd be out of the woods in a couple of years," one said.

However, the HMI report is damning - achievement below average in three-quarters of lessons; half the teaching unsatisfactory; no effective assessment; poor attendance; weak leadership; poor value for money.

But as a banner outside the school proclaims, for four years running results have been up. Teachers believe the school has not been given a chance since its last "fresh start" four terms ago when staffing was restructured and a plan to cut the Pounds 160,000 debt introduced.

Mr Stock and Ms Hilson now face the daunting task of putting their plan into action.

Merton has made them governors and they are busy contacting anyone who can help - starting with William Atkinson headteacher of Hammersmith's reborn Phoenix high.

One senior teacher says: "Jan and Dave's plan is very good, and will feed into our overall action plan. They're are getting heavily involved and that has got to be good for the school. It inspires other parents, which is critical. And it has inspired us to keep going."

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